Sunday, January 13, 2008


There's a potential battle brewing over Harvard University's plan to sell 99 acres of forest land that were willed to it in 1927 with the stipulation that it remain an "experimental station in forestry for the benefit of all persons and institutions in New England." Harvard would likely have to petition to have the trust revoked to be able to go forward with the sale.

There are plenty of institutions that have received donations with stipulations that ultimately were altered or ignored, without permission and without much outcry. Harvard's case is high-profile enough not to go unnoticed, however.

The donor did think enough of Harvard to give the gift, and the world is a different place than it was 81 years ago. Is it simply out of bounds for the university to use the assets given to it for any purpose other than the one the donor intended? Or should it be able to do so, if it deems the new purpose to be in the current best interest of the school?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I am not able to donate in such a large fashion to my Alma Mater but do oblige them when it comes to specific requests, such as new Science equipment, etc. One has to believe that your wishes will be honored when you send that donation. If it is accepted, then all avenues must be taken to protect it throughout its worthiness. Forests are getting rarer and this piece of land has only increased in value. Has it not been taken care of and is in need of lumbering? Have there been crimes against people in these woods? Do they wish to build? What are the details of this wish to raze the land?

RDavies said...

The simple answer to the ethical question of whether or not Harvard should honor the contract they entered into when accepting land from a donor's trust is yes.

Just because it has been eighty-one years since the donation is irrelevant.
If Harvard wants to divest itself of the 99 acres because they no longer meet the current best interests of the school, they should first hire an outside independent agency to locate all living relatives of the donor to offer them the land back. If they cannot locate any living relative, then they should offer the land to a non-profit that would continue to honor the spirit of the will: "an experimental station in forestry for the benefit of all persons and institutions in New England".

To do otherwise while hiding behind a "times have changed" excuse would be nothing more than moral expediency. In fact it might deter many others from future donations. It would be truly penny-wise and pound foolish.


Ronald O. Davies, DDS

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Mr. Davies,

Could you email me ( and tell me where you're from and where you read the column?


Jeffrey Seglin

Anonymous said...


Regarding the 81 year bequest of forest land to Harvard, the answer is yes or no.

It involves a legal doctrine proncouced "firey faces" in English (I forget what the Latin words are) that means the court must look to the intent of the grantor or donor in determining whether the sale or a new use is permitted.

In one famous case decided long ago, a wealthy man in the South deeded land to a city for use as a park so long as it was off limits to "niggers." If they were ever to be allowed access, the land was to revert to his heirs.

Decades later we had the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act and the city in a quandry. Under federal law they couldn't prohibit blacks from using the park. But it had been in use as a public park in the middle of town for longer than most people living there had been alive and the city didn't want to lose it. And there was general agreement that the park should be open to everyone.

Attitudes had changed over time.

Since times, conditions and attitudes had changed, the court found that had the donor been alive at the present time, his intent would have been to allow everyone access to the park. They determined that his attitude would have changed too. Unlikely, but they had to do something or lose the land.

One problem with such grants, like the 99 acres of forest to Harvard, is that times change. What was deemed an acceptable and reasonable use of a gift of land may become unreasonable and unworkable over time.

Donors seem to want to keep things fixed in time. But times move on.

It's like the global warming wackos trying to keep the Earth's temprature the same. It's always changing and who can say that our current temprature is best. I have a litograph of men ice skating on the Thames in 1847. It's from the London Illustrated News.

So your question doesn't have a simple yes or no answer. All sides much be considered. Where is the land located? Why did the donor wish that it remain forest land forever? What is the cost to Harvard in maintaining the land? Is there a better use for the land that will be in keeping with the donor's intent?

I doubt that condos built by a private developer would not be in keeping with his intent. But what about the land being subdivided into five acre estates with roads and green areas accessible by members of the general public? Who, practically speaking, has access to the forest at the present time?

That would certainly preserve the nature of the forest while allowing more members of the public to enjoy it. And the property tax base could be used to maintain it.

I went to Santa Rosa Junior College which is located (you could have guessed this one on your own) in Santa Rosa. It had a beautiful campus with a very large lawn upon which are some beautiful, stately oak trees.

Frank P. Doyle gave that land so a college could be built there with the restriction that the oak trees remain. He also established the Doyle Scholarships at the Exchange Bank he founded. That scholarship fund is somewhere around a billion dollars today. Mom, when she was working there, administered the scholarships which have gone out to tens of thousands of students over the past decades.

When I went there (1961-63) it was a relatively small junior college. Maybe around 3,000 students. They now number over 20,000 and that front lawn which is acres in size could be used for more buildings.

But the college can and has expanded in other directions plus adding branch campuses.

And so many people in that area have received Doyle scholarships, including many judges and lawyers, that if the school decided the trees were going to make way for newer buildings (the old ones are brick with ivy on them), the courts would rule against them. It is one of the most beautiful college campuses in California.

The continued existence of the oak trees are in keeping with Doyle's original intent (to provide a beautiful college for the people of Santa Rosa and surrounding areas), do not conflict with modern policies (minorities are free to use the lawns), do not impose an undue financial burden, and in fact are an early example of creating "green zones" in our cities and surrounding areas.

In short legal terms, the oak trees are gonna stay.

I know nothing about Harvard's forest. So before I could give you a yes or no answer, there are a whole lot of questions I'd have that should be answered.

So right now I give a definite maybe. Harvard should contact an attorney (which I am, but I'm not interested) for an answer. For the usual $250 per hour he or she will be able to tell them what can reasonably and legally be done with the forest land.

And, of course, for a reasonable fee of $500 per hour he or she will tell them what they want to hear. Justice isn't as cheap as it once used to be.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

And if Harvard wants to turn the forest into a super low-cost housing project destined to soon to turn into a blighted slum, for $1,000 per hour I can justify them doing that.

I think any good attorney can justify anything.

But personally, I'd like to see it developed (with very low density high end housing if that's necessary) into a green zone that is accessible and enjoyable by the public. With paths (the Sierra Club would be screaming about that idea) so the young, old and handicapped can enjoy it too.

The big philosophical question is, if you have an undeveloped area with lots of trees that people call a forest and no one ever sees and enjoys it, is it still a forest?


Anonymous said...

To answer the concerns, one must know whether Harvard had to acquiesce in the donation. If the donor simply said, " here is my donation, with conditions" and gave Harvard no choice, then it seems to me that Harvard can now properly do whatever they wish. But if the donor said, "if you don't accept my conditions, then the donation is off", then Harvard must now abide by their 1927 decision. However, you also mention a trust, but gave no information about who the trustees might be (Harvard? or the donor's relatives?); if the trust has rules, then that has to be the determining factor.

Bill Rihn
Laguna Beach, CA
Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

If Harvard agreed 81 years ago to accept the 99 acres by promising to keep it in use as an experimental forest, then it is committed to continue keeping it in that use. If the university no longer wants the land, or needs the income its sale might bring, or finds it too bothersome to continue keeping its promise, it should offer the land for sale to anyone willing to keep it in the promised use. No doubt, any such buyer would pay less than, say, a housing developer; however, tie fiduciary duty of the university to maximize its assets does not mean it should be able to abrogate its 1927 contract. It should sell the land to the highest bidder who promises to maintain that agreement in perpetuity (to avoid any sort of fraudulent purchase through some sort of "dummy" experimental forest group).
Surely there is, somewhere, some sort of forest-preservation group that could put the land to good use, if if it can only afford to pay a few cents on the dollar that a giant developer might pay.

Lee Quarnstrom
La Habra CA
Column in Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

I think that Harvard should be able to break the trust to sell the land. However, I think in the spirit of the trust the land should only be sold to an organization involved in “experimental forestry” or something similar such as environmental studies of some kind. That would allow Harvard to act “in the best interest of the school” and still honor the donor’s request.

There are probably situations where the subject of the trust should no longer be honored such as stipulations that would allow continuation of racism, sexism or something else now illegal.

Merrilee J. Gardner
Irvine, California

Anonymous said...

I always enjoying reading your column in the Orange County Register; it helps me keep my moral compass pointing in the right general direction.

Your question posed under the subhead "Sound off: This land is your land - to a point" in the January 14 edition presents a dilemma I have recently wrestled with. I am preparing to make a substantial endowment to a respected not-for-profit chartable institution and want to ensure that my intentions will be honored well into the future. At the suggestion of the recipient of my donation, we are inviting involvement of my family members in related activities of the organization during and after my lifetime. There are no guarantees in life (or certainly after!) but I believe this arrangement offers the best safeguards possible. The interest of the donor is the primary interest to be upheld. I believe about the most unethical/immoral offense anyone can commit is to violate the trust of the departed.

William G. Halbert
Laguna Beach, CA

Anonymous said...

I am appalled to read that not only is Harvard trying to go against the specific wishes of a donor, but that this goes on quite a lot.

I believe the descendants of the original donor should get the land back.

This harms the integrity of the school.

Why would anyone want to will land to any one ever again after reading this?


Veronica Ross
Garden Grove, CA
The Orange County Register